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10 years on the Toon

Steven Taylor is having a bit of a moan about the worst and longest injury of his career when he remembers why he will be addressing a room full of Newcastle supporters early next month.

Then, the tone changes. Instead of describing the long road back from a ruptured Achilles, he is struggling to find the right words to explain what he and two of his team-mates felt when they met a little girl who had lost her hands because of cancer.

"You have to witness it and experience it yourself to understand," he says. "You see the people first and it kicks you right in between your legs. It's heartbreaking. A couple of days ago we had a young girl in and her Mam had had to get £25,000 to buy her new hands. To see that, and she was only 15 months old when she had them amputated, had me and a few of the lads in bits. It was very difficult.

"I was sitting going on about my Achilles and it put everything into perspective. We are lucky, we are very lucky. If there pc I want to do it."

Thus, in five days' time at Kingston Park, home of the city's rugby team, the Falcons, Taylor will stand and talk about his decade as a Newcastle United player, the local lad who lives the dream; a dream that he did not quite envisage would include nine managers, two owners, two divisions, one FA Cup semi-final and a possible return to the Champions League.

massive

"I can still remember the first time I went into the ground with my dad when I was a little boy," he says. "I had one of those little Newcastle hats on, it had pin badges on and I had Phillipe Albert. That is why I wear No 27. He was massive to me. I always remember the boots he used to wear and the green Fila sign on the bottom. I remember being ball boy a bit later on and taking some of the grass off the pitch and putting it in my back pocket. I was a massive fan. I never thought I would get the chance to play here."

Taylor was 16 when Newcastle took a punt on him. He had been a centre forward until he was 12. As soon as he left school, John Carver (now back as Alan Pardew's No 2) pushed Bobby Robson to play him in the reserves. GCSEs one day, training with Alan Shearer, Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert the next. "It was huge," he adds. "I wasn't used to that. I had to grow up quick. Having them around me made me realise how much I wanted to make it."

Robson sent him to spend some time with his hero, Tony Adams, then in charge at Wycombe. He grew up a bit more and came on as a substitute at Real Mallorca in the Uefa Cup in March 2004. He was 18. Four days later, at the Reebok Stadium, he became a Premier League player, but eight months followed without another start and doubts crept in about whether he would make it. Graeme Souness was manager by that time. In training he would throw asides at Taylor, asking him if he really wanted it enough.

"In that year, I just thought, 'Will I ever get a chance again?' After the Bolton game all the big names came back and that didn't help. Then Souness took over and a week before the Everton game I was training with the reserves and he was saying to me, 'You look like a player but are you really one?' He just questioned me over and over again about whether I wanted it or not.

"I got that chance. We didn't lose. I think we drew 1-1 and I was delighted and from then on I've never looked back."

He went on to captain England U-21s, lost in a semi-final at the Millennium Stadium with Newcastle and suffered the same fate in the Uefa Cup quarter-finals. Twice he dislocated his shoulder and each time he returned too early. When Taylor finally scored at St James' Park, they had to lock the gates to curb his celebration.

"Has it been difficult to keep my feet on the ground? Not when I have a dad like mine. He's a Newcastle supporter himself but he's been the guy who's always kept my feet on the ground. I've got a family very passionate about Newcastle and they've been unbelievable towards me. My mam and dad are always there for me but they've always been prepared to knock me down to size whenever I've needed it."

There was no need for knocking when Newcastle, a further six managers down the line, were relegated at Villa Park almost three years ago. Taylor was the last man to kick a ball in the Premier League for the club that day, smashing it into the air as the enormity of demotion sank in. It was supposed to be the end but from there something different has emerged.

"The best thing to happen to Newcastle was for us to get relegated," he adds. "I'm actually glad we did in the end. It sorted us out as a football club and it knocked everyone down to reality."

Still, managerial change would follow promotion. Only at Newcastle.

But the introduction of Alan Pardew has further galvanised his club. Less than three seasons after relegation, Newcastle are fighting for third place in the Premier League. There is now a search for the secret and Taylor gives an insight into the workings of manager number nine.

"We had a meeting in America before the start of the season," he says. "He said we were a small squad and we would be in trouble if we didn't sort ourselves out and play together. We couldn't carry one person. We had to play a different way as well, instead of that long ball kind of way, we had to get it down and play it more.

You've got these new players, like Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba, but can they adjust to mixing in with the lads quickly? Sometimes for a foreign player coming into a club, and I've experienced it with Newcastle, they maybe take a year or two. These lads have been outstanding straight away. They settled in immediately. We have so many contenders for player of the year now. "We've had to graft. We know that if we don't graft we could be sliding down the table. It is credit to the players; do the right things and stick to the basics.

"The gaffer has been massive on his team spirit, on his bonding sessions, on his team meals, on the paintballing, on the team nights out we've had. He loves the banter, for him and the coaching staff. What you won't find is many teams where the players will mix in with the staff and the staff mix in with the players. That is what has happened with us, everyone is mixing in together. The kitman, the masseuse, the physios, we all mix in together. We have little days where the physios and the staff are playing against the players and everyone joins in. It's a good laugh. The lads love it.

"For us we need that, the lads could go, 'Why are they joining in with us' and sack it off. I've seen that done before, but not now and that's probably why it's so healthy here.

"There have been some weird meals when we have themed days but I'm one of them who will try anything. Whatever's there I'll have a go. Some of it has been weird. Okay, it's good for bonding, but maybes not so good for your stomach!"

ruptured

Small details. That is one of Pardew's strengths. So when Taylor ruptured his Achilles against Chelsea at the end of last year, during a period when he was playing the best football, he was not forgotten. Pardew makes sure Taylor sits next to the dugout for home games. He has been in and around the dressing-room during their incredible season. He sees the players in the morning when they arrive for training and at the start of this week ran around outside, near to them, for the first time.

"For the first two weeks after I did it I was at my mam and dad's and you don't realise how useless you feel," he says. "You're on crutches and I couldn't move around the place. You don't know what is happening. You're thinking, 'Is this it for me?' It has been a long, long road.

"The medical staff have been brilliant. It would have been so much harder without them and the coaching staff and the gaffer have kept me around the lads. Every day they ask how I am and that is a big encouragement. I should be back ready for pre-season training.

"You miss the banter and you miss playing. Most lads in the North-east want to be a footballer. I want to be back playing for Newcastle. That's why I'm a footballer. When you're not playing football, you're a nothing. You get forgotten about."

Taylor, now 26, might find that not to be the case on Thursday, when he talks of his career and helps children of unimaginable courage. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent